Myths and Interpretation

Revising my PhD thesis over these past weeks got me thinking again about myth and interpretation. It actually started with re-reading the fact that at both my study sites, there was an element of ‘myth busting’ in the interpreters’ motivation – that is, busting the myths of the public. There are a few things about this I want to explore.


Sometimes language doesn’t matter

The first thing I noted was the fact that at neither place people actually talked about ‘myth’ or indeed the idea of ‘busting’ them. Things have become much more subtle than they were eight years ago, when during an induction I was told that this interpretation was about ‘busting myths’ [1]. And yet, just because we’ve – thankfully – moved on from such confrontational language doesn’t mean that our underlying motivation isn’t the same. In Germany for example, they talked about ‘not wanting to add to the clichés’, and they wanted to avoid this by giving nothing but ‘facts’ and ‘evidence’. That may sound unobjectionable, but in popular speech, and certainly the way it was used, ‘cliché’ is about as bad a dismissal of the validity of (public) value [2] as is ‘myth’. The referene to ‘fact’ and ‘evidence’ reveals that same sense of superior knowledge that underpins the action of ‘busting’ a ‘public myth’. Just because we’re referring to it differently, doesn’t make the approach any better.


Why the approach is flawed

At the core of the above, I would argue, is the unshakable conviction that heritage is only truly captured and understood by expert science, study and evidence. That is why someone can look at, for example, ‘the ‘45’ and become obsessed with the fact that ‘the public’ often call it a conflict between Scotland and England. Thus, the expert sets out to ‘bust’ this myth by focusing on a myriad of historical facts that show that there were Scots on the Government side, and wider European forces at play. What this conviction completely fails to understand is that heritage is not about fact. That ‘myth’ interpreters set out to ‘bust’, or the cliché they want to ‘not add to’ [3], is often either largely irrelevant (as in the first case) or the very meaning of the heritage (as in the second – to some degree). What the interpreters in the first case focused on was history. History is not heritage. Historical fact, as many studies have shown [4], is regularly fully acknowledged by, and known to people, and still plays absolutely no role in their heritage-meaning [5].


But just hypothetically: if we must ‘bust’ myths, why are we so selective about which ones?

I’ve been blogging for a while now about my belief that interpretation has a moral obligation to tell a balanced story and hold up a mirror to society, to the point where it is also necessary for museums to take a stand. In a way, this is a critique of the absence of that ‘myth busting’ (however we’re calling it these days) when it comes to our own narratives: our professional training and philosophy as evident in our practice (see above), the mission of our institution, and the officially sanctioned story we’re so often telling. At my English case study for example (the Battle of Hastings), the interpretation noted, albeit very delicately presented, that ‘out of this battle arises the England that we know today’, hinting at that British sense of unbroken continuity and stability that, I would suggest, is the source of such outgrowths like the article written by ‘Historians for Britain’ [6]. Of course, historically speaking, there is no such continuity, and in the ’45 I’ve already noted one challenge to the supposed stability. Another example is Britain’s pride in its supposed ‘historical role of offering a sanctuary to those fleeing conflict and persecution’ [7]. Again, historically speaking, that role has been far more shameful than this repeated appeal suggests, as this Guardian article of 2002 outlines. However, this is also a myth that to date I’ve not seen ‘busted’ in British museum exhibitions. The question we have to ask ourselves, and ask ourselves with real honesty, is: why? Why do we on one hand appeal to historical accuracy to challenge what we believe are ‘myths’ held by the public, while on the other we remain silent on myths that stand on equally shaky historical ground?


An attempt at an answer

I can think of a few reasons why the above may happen. In my examples from Britain, there is a strong element here of the ‘official’ narrative about Britain: it is no surprise that all examples are from a political context, they serve a political purpose. This is about ‘national’ identity, and many writers have noted how history (and heritage) can be manipulated by governments to serve a national purpose [8]. This is also filtered down through education: the Battle of Hastings for example is a central topic in the English curriculum, and the notion of ‘this is where our country started’ was something that visitors in my interviews said over and over again [9]. I can well imagine the reluctance too of interpreters at, for example, the Imperial War Museum, to stage an exhibition that exposes Britain’s anti-Jewish immigration policies of the Second World War, when the museum receives just under half its funding in grant-in-aid from a department of the Government that at this very moment relies so heavily on these narratives about Britain’s generosity. And then there is also the simple matter that as people, even professional interpreters are deeply rooted in their own personal myths. Even becoming aware of these myths takes huge effort and commitment, as the discussions about Ferguson have revealed over these past two years. At the moment, that’s not in the foreground of interpretation philosophy, however. As a profession, we seem quite content to rely primarily on our own moral compass, as evident for example in our guidelines for themes. After all, we care about heritage and seek its conservation – what wrong could we ever do in that? Or so our myth seems to go.


So what to do?

For now and in response to what I’ve written above, suffice it to say that no matter what we call it, ‘busting’ ‘myths’ the public hold is a non-starter if we’re doing heritage interpretation. It becomes even more wrong if at the same time we’re leaving unchallenged other myths, particularly those that we just so happen to share, or which we (should) know serve an official purpose. I come back to interpretation as information, and holding up a mirror to society, taking a stand. But there is also more to myth than meets the eye, and I’ll come back to that in another post.




[1] This was at Culloden Battlefield, and the ‘myth’ was that the battle and preceeding Jacobite campaign represented a fight between Scotland and England.

[2] Understood here as ‘what the public value’, see Jowell, T., 2006. ‘From consultation to conversation: the challenge of Better Places to Live.’ Conference Proceedings, Capturing the Public Value of Heritage, London, 25-26 January 2006, pp. 7-13

[3] I should say that in order not to ‘add to it’, the interpretation in Germany mostly ignored the ‘cliché’ altogether, and where it did address it – in an exhibition banished to a secondary, near-hidden space exposed to the elements (!) – it did so with a clear message that this was the wrong kind of thinking to have.

[4] I know I refer to him a lot but that’s because his is the most comprehensive study of heritage I’ve read to date on this aspect: Basu, P., 2007. Highland Homecomings. Oxon: Routledge. If you want to go to a classic (but one which is more philosophical than empirical, and also treats this aspect of heritage with some ambivalence), you can always read, Lowenthal, D. 1998. The Heritage Crusade and the Spoils of History. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

[5] Lest you think I therefore argue facts should be ignored, please read this post on why I think interpretation is information.

[6] I want to make it very clear that despite this one thing (and it is literally just this one thing), I thought the interpretation planning, and the interpretation ultimately provided at the Battle of Hastings was and is exemplary. Regarding ‘Historians for Britain’, I also want to point you to the counter-arguments that immediately sprung up from other historians, for example here. In other words, the historical facts are there and broadly accepted, but haven’t found their way into interpretation.

[7] This sentence comes from a letter that Harriet Harman, a Labour politician, wrote to the UK Prime Minister on 3 September 2015, when calling for the UK to take more refugees.

[8] See for example Goulding, C. and Domic, D., 2009. ‘Heritage, Identity and Ideological Manipulation: The case of Croatia.’ Annals of Tourism Research 36 (1), pp. 85-102, or Tunbridge, J.E. and Ashworth, G.J., 1996, Dissonant Heritage. The Managemet of the past as a resource in conflict. Chichester: John Wiley & Sons, here esp. p. 122 about the interpretation of Buchenwald by the German Democratic Republic.

[9] Intriguing point: is it thus a genuine heritage-meaning, or an officially prompted one?

2 thoughts on “Myths and Interpretation

  1. Ouch! You just make my head hurt. (Just kidding) But isn’t practically all written history a listing of specific detailed instances – either of which are included or left out – and bounded by an almost unavoidably pejorative narrative? And if the same ‘slightly colored’ tale is told enough times … you have a cultural meme, or trope. (Though some of those need undoing worse than others.) Surely you’re not suggesting there is only one, absolutely true and concise ‘version,’ of any given historical event. (Let alone, an epoch!) ☺

    1. I’m genuinely curious as to what in this post could have given you the impression that I am asserting the existence of ‘one, absolutely true and concise “version” of any given historical event’, as you write. I assure you, I’m not. The post is a critique of a very specific interpretative approach/intent, that of ‘busting’ ‘myths’, and specifically the question why, if we do sanction this intent (which I don’t), we are ‘busting’ some ‘myths’ but not others. At the very foundation of this critique is my conviction that there is *no* objective truth, that if interpretation wants to be more than another account of history in the way you describe it, it needs to ‘reveal’ (argh!) not just that which suits our particular version of history, but *all* the relevant perspectives. Hope that clarifies matters and makes your head hurt less :-).

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